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Issue 12 - For Queen and Country

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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For Queen and Country

The Atholl Highlanders are the sole private army in Europe so it's only right they help to safeguard one of Scotland's greatest treasures - Blair Castle. Kate Ennis reports

Talk about a reception! As we approached the majestic white turreted building that is Blair Castle, we were met by formidable kilted men brandishing bayonets. Luckily they weren’t hostile.

The 10 men standing in formation were members of the Atholl Highlanders – an army first formed in 1778 who were granted colours and the right to bear arms by Queen Victoria in gratitude for guarding her during a three week holiday her in 1842.

Now a ceremonial army, they are a colourful asset to the castle, which has been home to the Atholl family since the 1400s, and both the army and the castle serve Scotland proud.

Today there are 100 hundred men all picked from the local community - you’ll find the local policeman, butcher and undertaker amongst the troops.

As one of the first private houses to become a tourist attraction, it now draws in more visitors than any other in Scotland. On the day of my visit, big crowds had gathered, intrigued by the guardsmen.

This was a rare occasion. The Highlanders usually appear just once a year in May when the current (11th) Duke of Atholl travels from his home in South Africa to visit the castle and inspect his troops.

After much anticipation the men sprung into action. The leading guardsman barked his orders and the troops marched across the drive. A canon was loaded and shot with a big bang and a puff of smoke, much to the delight of onlookers. Then the army piper played, signalling that the castle could now be entered. So from one grand reception to another - that of the castle. The lofty entrance hall cannot fail to impress and intimidate.

The walls are covered in every type of fighting apparatus imaginable: Swords, daggers, shields, Napoleonic bayonets and muskets used in the Battle of Culloden.

This hall was part of extensions made by the 7th Duke of Atholl in the 1870s.

A windfall payment from the first railway line running through Blair’s 145,000 acre estate funded the remodelling which also added a tower and ballroom.

But this was not Blair Castle’s first transformation. Its walls hold many layers of history from the medieval foundations seven centuries ago to Tudor extensions, then the grandeur of a Georgian mansion before the Victorians turned it back into a castle in baronial style.

From the Victorian hall, the tour takes you down into the heart of the oldest parts of the building - to two vaulted rooms which commemorate the life and times of Atholl family in the 16th and 17th century.

Queen Victoria was not Blair’s only royal association. The Atholl family were loyal supporters of Mary Queen of Scots and she visited the castle in 1564.

Two double portraits of Mary hang here. Rising from the basement you come to the picture staircase –a family portrait gallery where the 2nd Duke, resplendent in red robes, gazes out from the top.

His taste for grandeur is reflected not only in his portrait but the staircase itself- part of his remodelling of the castle into a impressive Georgian mansion.

His grand vision can be seen further as you carry on up to the drawing room and tea room, but best witnessed in the dining room- a splendid space for entertaining.

It is still occasionally used for dinner parties and receptions including the annual meeting of the Keepers of the Quaich.

Luckily no one was dining when part of the ceiling fell down in 1985. The damage however was seamlessly repaired – indistinguishable from the original stucco by Thomas Clayton, who also crafted the elaborate overmantel.

Moving onto the anteroom, it’s back to modern times with an exhibition to commemorate the life of 10th Duke who died in 1996. It was he who revived the Atholl Highlanders in 1966 and turned Blair into the major tourist attraction it is now.

Through the attractive blue bedroom is the 4th Duke’s corridor. He was known as ‘Planting Duke’ as he planted 25 million larch trees during his lifetime and is said to have used a cannon to disperse the seeds.

Next is the Derby suite with a range of unusual broomwood furniture and then the scarlet red bedroom, which was last slept in by the Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan when he visited in 1921.

The red continues with the crimson damask of the drawing room – the pinnacle of the 2nd Duke’s grand vision. Thomas Clayton’s most elaborate plasterwork is here - in fact it took his team of craftsmen 10 years to complete.

Leaving the drawing room you re-enter the oldest part of the house again – and you can tell instantly by the drop in temperature! It is here in Tullibardine room, where yet another royal guest is said to have stayed in 1743 - Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The tapestry room next door was the bedroom of the 1st Duke. The state bed with rich silk hangings was brought from Holyrood and is topped with ostrich plumes to symbol wealth and fertility. This was certainly true - he was wealthy enough to purchase the rare tapestries that hang in the room and fertile enough to have 20 children!

Next the Banvie suite - comfortable Victorian rooms that hold a collection of jet jewellery and silhouette portraits. The Atholl Highlanders are frequently depicted, having protected the queen so well during her stay and there is a room dedicated to them.

As the tour comes to an end you see the Victorian ballroom, featuring an Edwin Landseer painting and the portrait and fiddle of the celebrated composer Neil Gow. There are also stunning embroidery pieces not to be missed in the China Room.

It’s well worth spending time in the state of the art visitor centre - an extension adding yet another layer of history to Blair Castle. There is a shop, restaurant and outdoor terrace with views of the grounds.

The Dukes lavished as much attention on the surrounding landscape as the castle, with formal gardens and wooded groves.

If all this isn’t enough reason to visit, the castle hosts to large events such as the Bowmore International Horse Trials and the Glenfiddich World Piping Championships.